Three Strikes: Sanchez outduels Kluber as Blue Jays stave off elimination
- Aaron Sanchez threw six strong innings and Josh Donaldson homered to help Toronto avoid a sweep and stay alive in the ALCS, forcing a Game 5 with the Indians.
The Blue Jays live to fight another day. Though faced with grim odds—just five out of 35 previous teams down three games to none in a best-of-seven LCS or World Series had won even one game, with only one coming back to win a series—they prolonged their season with a 5–1 win over the Indians. Long plate appearances forced Indians starter Corey Kluber, who was working on three days’ rest, from the game after five innings. The Jays broke the game open thanks to an uncharacteristically sloppy inning by the Indians, and pulled away against the soft underbelly of the bullpen for a 5–1 win.
The big inning
The Indians’ bullpen had absolutely dominated the first three games of the series, posting a 1.26 ERA in 14⅓ innings (including 8⅓ on Monday night in relief of the bleeding Trevor Bauer) while striking out 21 of 51 batters faced and walking just one. But neither Andrew Miller nor Cody Allen rode to the rescue when Kluber departed on the short end of a 2–1 score. After throwing 21 and 27 pitches on Monday, respectively, neither pitched on Tuesday. Dan Otero threw a scoreless sixth inning, but Bryan Shaw made a mess of the seventh.
Shaw began by yielding a leadoff single to Ryan Goins, then induced a chopper from slumping Jose Bautista (now in a 1-for-22 slide), barehanding the ball while moving to his right but throwing over first baseman Mike Napoli’s head and into foul territory, with Goins advancing to third. In an attempt to set up a forceout at the plate, manager Terry Francona elected to intentionally walk Josh Donaldson, whose third-inning solo homer opened the scoring, and whose 14 hits and seven extra-base hits lead all hitters in the postseason.
Edwin Encarnacion followed the walk by stroking a 96 mph cutter up the middle for a two-run single that expanded the lead to 4–1, though Donaldson was thrown out at third base after Goins and Bautista scored. Mike Clevinger came on in relief of Shaw and threw a wild pitch that advanced Encarnacion to third, but neither Troy Tulowitzki nor Russell Martin—now a combined 3 for 28 in the series—could get the ball out of the infield.
The Jays added another run against Clevinger in the eighth, when Ezequiel Carrera tripled for the second game in a row and scored on Kevin Pillar’s sacrifice fly.
The Blue Jays came into the game having scored just four runs on 17 hits (four for extra bases, just one of which was a home run) in the series’ first three games, through which they were batting .177/.233/.250; by comparison, they hit .266/.344/.550 during the Division Series against the Rangers.
For the first time all series, they got a lead when Donaldson crushed a 2–2 hanging curveball for a third-inning solo homer off Kluber. In fact, it was the first time in 53 innings that the Indians trailed, dating back to the third inning of Game 1 of the Division Series against the Red Sox, just before a trio of solo homers off Rick Porcello turned the tide in that series.
Via Statcast, the home run was estimated at 402 feet. The Blue Jays nearly added another run five pitches later, when Encarnacion put a charge into a 1–2 slider, but where Donaldson’s ball left the bat with a 99 mph exit velocity and a 27 degree launch angle, Encarnacion’s was just 97 with a 29 degree launch angle—enough of a difference to keep the ball in the park; it died at the warning track in right-center, where Lonnie Chisenhall hauled it in.
Had Francona not emptied the bullpen in Game 3 to cover for the injured Bauer, the Indians planned to start rookie Ryan Merritt for Game 4 and then Kluber for Game 5. The parade of relievers led Cleveland to go to their backup plan to bring back their ace on three days of rest, leaving him in line to pitch a potential Game 7 on short rest as well.
Kluber had thrown 13⅓ scoreless innings in his two series-opening turns and ran his streak to a club postseason record 16 innings before yielding the homer to Donaldson, but he needed 20 pitches to complete that inning, more than he had thrown in any other frame. He gave up another run in a 19-pitch fourth that began with back-to-back walks of Tulowitzki (four pitches) and Martin (eight pitches). Kluber struck out Michael Saunders but yielded a bloop single into centerfield by Carrera, bringing home Tulowitzki. Subsequent strikeouts of Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins kept the deficit at 2–0.
After retiring Bautista, Donaldson and Encarnacion in order in the fifth, Kluber’s afternoon was done. He threw 89 pitches, yielding four hits and two walks while striking out seven. The Blue Jays swung and missed at 18 of his pitches—six curves, five sliders, four four-seamers and three sinkers—equaling his total in his first two postseason starts.
Opposite number Aaron Sanchez, who hadn’t started since Oct. 9, was sharper and more efficient than Kluber, throwing 95 pitches in six innings while allowing just two hits and one run. He didn’t surrender his first hit until Tyler Naquin led off the third inning with a double, and took advantage of a sacrifice bunt and a pair of strong plays by Goins to prevent the run from scoring.
The Indians did break through in the fifth, when Coco Crisp drew a one-out walk, took second on a wild pitch and scored on Roberto Perez’s RBI double. But that was the only other hit Sanchez allowed; Donaldson made a diving stop of a potential game-tying single by Carlos Santana to end the fifth inning and preserve the 2–1 lead.
Sanchez, who finished with the lowest ERA among AL starters (3.00) and the fourth-highest groundball rate (54.1%), stuck to that game plan via heavy reliance on his sinker. Nine of his 13 outs on balls in play came via groundballs, while only two balls made it to the outfield. He struck out five, three of them swinging at curveballs.
Once he departed, Brett Cecil, Jason Grilli and Roberto Osuna each set the Indians down in order to preserve the victory. The teams will wrap up the Canadian leg of the LCS at the Rogers Center, with Merritt (and likely Miller, Allen et al) and Marco Estrada squaring off just after 4 p.m. ET.